The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m a Russian journalist. I had to flee my country.

Putin’s latest crackdown has destroyed the independent media

Russian police respond to antiwar protests in St. Petersburg on Feb. 25. (For The Washington Post)
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As of March 4, 2022, there is no independent media in Russia.

This is not an exaggeration: The few independent outlets that remained operational after years of government-led pressure and harassment were either blocked by Russia’s censors, were declared illegal or dissolved themselves. No one was spared; a special kind of cruel mockery was reserved for Echo of Moscow, a centrist radio station whose editor in chief, Alexey Venediktov, made a point of being on friendly terms with top regime figures. Not only did this fail to save Echo from being taken off the air (the last time that happened was in August 1991, when the then-newborn station was censored by leaders of a failed putsch), but on top of that, RT’s Margarita Simonyan gleefully announced that the station’s former frequency would be transferred to Radio Sputnik, a government propaganda outlet that she heads.

I found out that the news website where I work as the investigative editor, Meduza, was also blocked on the morning of March 4 — when I arrived in Riga, Latvia, having crossed Russia’s border on foot. I left in part because there were rumors circulating in Moscow about impending martial law. Its activation would almost guarantee the suspension of most civil liberties, including freedom of the press, and quite possibly border closures. That hasn’t happened — yet — but we’ve come as close to it as ever.

Hours after Meduza and other news websites were blocked, the Russian parliament, in an extraordinary session of both chambers, approved a new law that effectively makes my job as a journalist a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false information” about Russia’s “special military operation” — that is, for covering it factually, starting with calling it a war. It’s now illegal to quote any sources other than Russia’s Defense Ministry — which is claiming, among other things, that reports of civilian casualties in Ukraine are fake because Russia’s army is only precision-striking military targets, and anyway Ukrainians are bombing themselves to accuse Russia of war crimes.

Presenters on the last remaining independent television channel, TV Rain, had tried to avoid the inevitable by appending their reports about Ukrainians murdered by Russian bombs with apologetic disclaimers that Russia’s Defense Ministry disputed the information. But it didn’t save them: The day before the censorship law passed, TV Rain closed shop, ending its final segment on air with a symbolic video clip from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” (famously looped on Soviet TV during the 1991 putsch’s media blackout). Novaya Gazeta, probably the most esteemed media institution, whose editor in chief, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, announced “with terrible shame” that it had no choice but to comply with the censorship demands and avoid any war coverage.

It would not be an overstatement to say that what’s happening now has no precedent. In Soviet times, there were thaws and outlets for moderate dissent. The New York Times reported from Moscow throughout the 20th century — through revolutions, two world wars and a cold one, and everything in between — but the risks are now so high that it’s pulling its bureau from Moscow. In fact, there are few journalists left in Russia. Most are fleeing in panic after seeing their profession criminalized, leaving Moscow with whatever they can panic-pack into a couple of bags and joining the mushrooming emigre communities in Istanbul; Yerevan, Armenia; and Riga. The process is tragic and painful. Families are broken apart. Entire lives are left behind, with little hope for return in the near future.

‘It is impossible to turn such close nations against each other, it is inhuman’

Meduza, where I work, was born out of censorship. In 2014, in the earliest phases of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Kremlin-linked oligarch owner (there is no other kind) fired Galina Timchenko, the editor in chief of Lenta.ru, one of the most popular news sites in Russia, over an interview with a Ukrainian far-right commander. Lenta.ru’s entire editorial team walked out in solidarity, and a few months later, a dozen of them set up shop in neighboring Latvia, outside Russia’s repressive jurisdiction. But we have never considered ourselves exile media or a partisan pamphlet. We have attracted a large online following — close to 1 million visitors on a quiet news day — and we were grudgingly tolerated, if not respected, as a worthy adversary in the Kremlin. Officials responded to our requests for comment because they couldn’t ignore our audience of millions.

That changed dramatically in April 2021, when Russia’s Justice Ministry ministry declared Meduza a “foreign agent” — an ominous-sounding status with far-reaching negative consequences. Our successful business model was obliterated overnight, as few, if any, companies could tolerate a legal disclaimer announcing our status on top of their ads. We adapted and have been surviving on donations — until a huge chunk of that revenue was also turned to dust by the collapsing ruble and the withdrawal of Visa and Mastercard from Russia. Now we have to adapt again; we cannot and will not give up, when millions of people depend on our 24/7 live coverage of the illegal and immoral war the Kremlin refuses to even acknowledge. Our website is blocked in Russia — but we anticipated this and educated our readers about using virtual private networks to circumvent bans. Our Telegram channel went from half a million subscribers to well over 1 million in one week after the war’s outbreak. We have to keep going — to document our country’s war crimes for posterity, if for no other reason. Hopefully somewhere, sometime, someone will be held responsible for the terrible atrocities committed in Ukraine in our name. Hopefully, we’ll still be around to provide the evidence.

Putin’s case for invading Ukraine rests on phony grievances and ancient myths

Others are adapting too, in both low-tech and innovative ways. As news websites are blocked — along with entire social networks like Twitter and Facebook — shortwave radio broadcasts are making a comeback. Mediazona, an independent news project focusing on political trials and Russia’s laws and prisons, is using a sophisticated ban-busting mirror hosting setup to stay online.

But the biggest problem that Russian independent journalists face is not about delivering the news: It’s persuading our fellow citizens to accept the horrific truth that Russia is bombing cities and towns where their own relatives live. Toxic propaganda from the Kremlin’s media empire offers them a convenient off-ramp, absolving people of any responsibility. The level of denial in millions of Russians with familial ties to Ukraine is such that a man in Kyiv launched a website called “Papa, Believe Me” because he couldn’t get his father living in Russia to admit that Russian airplanes were bombing his home.

So facts alone are not enough to stop Putin’s war — but they are a necessary start. Not just Russia, but the entire world now needs independent Russian journalism to provide the truth.

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